My friend Doug and I recently bonded over our mutual childhood terror of the ventriloquist’s dummy in a television ad for a movie called Magic. Subsequent YouTubing of said artifact revealed it to be every bit as terrifying as we remembered. Not all childhood terrors hold up as well in this instant-retrieval age; too often, to revisit these scenes is to set oneself up for disappointment. Me, I like a little lingering childhood terror, and in that spirit I present the following personal history of formative movie scares.
Dimly-remembered-from-childhood scary is the most magical scary feeling. My earliest memories of being scared by movies and television always involve production art, like the portrait of Blackbeard in the otherwise scare-free Disney spoof, Blackbeard’s Ghost. Still creepy, as I found out while on a pirate movie marathon a few years back. I wasn’t sure I’d seen the movie before, but as soon as I saw the portrait I remembered being scared of it. Things like that don’t happen often enough.
I keep meaning to see if the Mansfield Library has a copy of Donovan’s Brain, but it’s one of those errands that never makes it off the list that vanishes from my head the second I actually enter a library. Which is probably just as well, because I want to go on thinking that the movie is full of creepy, chilling production artwork. If I went back and watched and it turned out the chilling artwork was from another movie, I wouldn’t know where to start looking.
I was scared of this movie long before I ever got a chance to see it. As a kid, I used to wait out my mom’s grocery shopping by browsing at a nearby bookstore—a place of great adult awakenings, free as I was to pop back and forth between Peanuts books and swarthier fare like Shogun and Truly Tasteless Jokes. Paperback copies of The Shining at this time—around 1981—featured publicity stills from the movie, including one of Shelly Duvall weakly clutching a butcher knife and screaming in terror at the fire axe plunging through the bathroom door. I was horrified but I had to look, every time I was in the bookstore, as though looking long could dispel some of that horror, which it never did. To be honest, I can’t even remember seeing the movie for the first time. Probably it was a butchered TV version, and then in furtive little peeks when my parents were out of earshot.
Unforgettable to most movie viewers, of course, are both the movie’s creeping dread, which commences with the opening aerial shot and Wendy Carlos’ forebodingly flatulent synthesizer version of the medieval “Dies Irae” on the soundtrack, and a few spine-tingling startles underlined by some truly scary music. One of the enduring charms of the Big Wheel scene is that you never remember exactly which corner Danny rounds to confront the butchered Grady girls, holding hands and beckoning him to play with them forever, and ever, and ever, just as the Penderecki on the soundtrack reaches an apex of clashing howling. Still a joy, even after multiple close watchings.
Nightmare on Elm Street
I got nightmares just from the theatrical trailer of Wes Craven’s only good movie. Well, not nightmares exactly, but, for a teenager, a pretty late case of having to long-jump into bed to avoid having my ankles grabbed by anything lurking underneath. That was the price I paid for sneaking in to see Porky’s III with my friend Randy and his older sister: the Elm Street preview was all I could think about. Would I do it again? Yes. Probably.
Unlike The Shining, which I still rent occasionally when life’s new terrors make me nostalgic for old, familiar movie ones, I haven’t watched Nightmare on Elm Street for more than 20 years. I’m sure it would look cheesy, and this is one of those cases where there’s no point in going back, no gain to retroactively smoothing down those prickled-up neck hairs. I prefer to savor my last few tablespoonfuls of blood curdled specifically by Nightmare on Elm Street and its mutilating incubus, its girls in body bags dragged around the high school by unseen hands, and to a lesser extent Freddie’s tongue pushing rudely into Heather Langenkamp’s mouth through the mouthpiece of the family telephone. I’ll probably wind up showing it to my kids.
I saw this one all by myself in Butte, where my dad and I were staying overnight for reasons I no longer remember and went to the movies to kill some time. We couldn’t agree on one, so I saw Jacob’s Ladder, he saw Quigley Down Under, and we met in the lobby afterwards in decidedly different head-spaces.
My two favorite moments: the hospital visit where that voice suddenly comes booming in off-screen (the simplest feat of sound editing), and Elizabeth Peña’s character, fed up with Tim Robbins loafing around with his demon literature, gets right in his face, “Anybody home?” The simplest feat of makeup. One pass with the rewind button reveals exactly why the two-second shot is so scary, but does nothing to weaken its punch. Also, it’s always scary and rad when characters suddenly talk in demonic voices (The Exorcist, Ghostbusters) or have different/freaky eyes (Angel Heart, the “Thriller” video). That’s entertainment!